There was a time in the United States when we didn’t expect a President to single handedly solve all of our economic and social problems. It seems to me that our idea that the President should be almost omnipotent began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who faced problems second only to those Abraham Lincoln faced. Americans fell in love with that energetic, optimistic man full of plans to overcome the Great Depression and after that terrible time passed, then morphed into the victorious war leader against the forces of Nazism.
Since that time we frequently, in times that are especially tough, expect the President to work miracles. Well, life and our “separation of powers” democratic process don’t often work that way. Add in the rampant corruption that is now present in the way we fund campaigns and with the career politicians who spend most of their adult lives comfortably ensconced in safe, well-gerrymandered offices. We have a situation that makes it well nigh to impossible for one man to effect meaningful change in the system.
Even so, some Democrats now insist that Barack Obama must be blamed for not saving us from all our difficulties, reforming our politics, and passing the programs dear to our hearts. Perhaps it is because of Obama’s oratorical skills that a few Democrats thought that behind those stirring words is a transformational leader ready to create all by himself the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” someone who will lead us to a liberal nirvana. People like that completely misread what great orators do. They don’t cause change by solving everything themselves. They simply arouse others to form a movement and demand action for change.
This is not the first time I have noticed Democrats suffering from a “savior complex.” There was much of the same feeling on the Left when Bill Clinton unexpectedly beat George H.W. Bush to regain the presidency after twelve years of conservative Republican leadership. I, too, had real hopes for the “man from Hope.” Then came the 1994 election, and Congress flipped back to the Republicans. I was forced to confront something that had been obvious all along about Clinton
Bill Clinton came into office as one of the founders of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that was formed in the wake of George McGovern’s dismal defeat in 1984. The DLC was determined to take the Democratic Party to the right and toward a corporate-friendly set of policies. So, deregulation of business began with Clinton’s inauguration, and free trade agreements like NAFTA became party gospel.
After Clinton lost both houses of Congress in the 1994 election, he became even more center-right, adopting a policy of “triangulation” and bringing in rightwingnut Dick Morris as an adviser. (If you want to see how far right Morris is, you might be able to catch him on Faux News defending Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry.) Out of that collaboration, for instance, came “welfare reform,” which turned a social program aimed at helping the poor, mainly women and children, into a program that that had a short time limit and was no longer an entitlement.
In 2011 we have a situation not completely different from 1994. The 2010 election saw Democratic turnout far below expectations, while Republicans were energized to vote and gain power. The House was put into the hands of a GOP even more extreme than Newt Gingrich had led in the 1990’s. If liberals think that Barack Obama can work miracles with a Republican House and a Senate GOP minority that has used the filibuster more than any Senate in our history, they’re off the wall.
Barack Obama came into office as a young man with many gifts but limited knowledge of how Washington works. He had experience in organizing people for political action. He had learned how to work within a system that still regards blacks and women with suspicion when they push too fast for political change. He is perhaps the most gifted orator since Franklin Roosevelt, but he was a newcomer to the Washington scene. So, he surrounded himself with people who knew how to work the system, people like Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, Tim Geitner. They were well versed in the ways of Washington, but none of them were people who were was predisposed to overthrow the status quo.
Exactly what did we expect from President Obama? The best thing for the country in 2009 was we didn’t have George W. Bush in the White House any more. However, we were kidding ourselves if we thought that progressive goals for the nation were assured with the election. That’s not how systemic change happens. It happens when activists force change. That’s how the far-right has perverted the Republican Party. That’s the only way we progressives can change the Democratic Party. Get down in the trenches and do the work. No political savior will do that work for us. Barack Obama isn’t Spiderman. We are.